Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sense And Sensitivity (Temp Town Dispatches, Vol 1)

Lately, as days off have grown fewer and further between, I've been noticing one of the worst aspects of Temp Town that don't directly involve working conditions or the way the rest of the legal profession treats you as an untouchable.

When I'm on the clock or just off it (at either end) I notice that I'm more sensitive and in general and irritable in particular. That which is easy to ignore out in the open seems harder to suffer. I don't know if it's a lack of sleep, or boredom, or what it is. But something changes. The little tics and mannerisms of one's coworkers are thrown into high relief. Their speaking tendencies get noticed and scrutinized. Memoranda from supervisors and bosses about small matter at work that are objectively relatively benign can morph in one's mind into personal slights to one's dignity.

One person's tendency to act as self-appointed expert on everything, fond of confusing her various opinions with objective fact and smugly declaring them, seems to annoy exponentially more as the waking hours spent in a room where she isn't there grow shorter and more precious. I feel like I know her better than some of her relatives do, and I don't really want to know her. Another one's bizarre sense of entitlement cloaked in what might be self-deprecating humor grows more tiresome the more words she spends declaiming the not-all-that-dire straits she finds herself in.

I have my moments where I sound more like Larry David than someone truly put upon. I think the difference is that at some level I am aware that my concerns are often petty, so I tend to keep them to myself. Many of them revolve around my commute.

I wonder if being married is like this, except that one get to choose one's spouse and no one in this line of work gets to choose his coworkers. I certainly see way more of the people in this office than I do anyone else right now, and it's possible some of my married coworkers see more of me than they do their spouses.

Not all jobs are like this. Usually you hit it off with someone, and can develop good friendships, since shared adversity (such as it is) can bond people closer together. But that doesn't always happen.

Sometimes I think thoughts that make me not want to like myself much. Perhaps most people are like that, except some of them are missing the mechanism that tells them "Let's pull ourselves together and not act on what we know are bad impulses."

Existence in this sort of space makes one notice, and be sensitive to, small changes that in most contexts would go unnoticed. Small changes in temperature, general background noise level, the proximity of other people, the conversational tone of coworkers, the subject matter of conversations around you, the way one perceive the extent to which one's employers are watching closely, the way the workplace rules are changed (implicitly or explicitly).

And the little things can loom large.

For over a week I have watched my beloved Twix bars in the vending machine, buried beneath three Baby Ruth bars that I don't want. And finally someone has removed the last obstacle between me and that tasty combination of cookie, caramel, and chocolate that I so adore. And when the man who fills the vending machine comes by, I silently observe him place the candy bars into the slots that will determine what I do when the inevitable 2:00 food coma kicks in. In the normal world, off the clock, no way would I spent so much mental energy on how many candy bars stand between me and the Liberation of the Exalted Twix.

And I find it's not even just at work, but during the commute to or from work as well. I notice breaches of the little, mostly unwritten rules of acceptable rider behavior on Metro - people who stand on the left on the escalators, people who partially block the train doors when it's not their stop and there's plenty of room further in the train, people who stop at the top or bottom of the escalators because they're not sure where they're going next - that are relatively easy for me to ignore at other times. On those thankfully relatively rare times where I need to hit the roads during rush hour, nerves are more easily frayed when I'm going to or from work.

The slightest damn thing that happens on the Beltway can mean 30 minutes more time stuck on the road. And even a little precipitation is enough to foul absolutely everything up. And time never moves so fast as when you're trying to get to work so you can clock in...and never as slowly as when you're sitting there in the office.

And when I get home, not finding parking on my block, increasing ever so marginally the distance I'm going to have to carry my backpack and gym bag the next morning, just irks me more than by all rights it really should. Especially on any day where there's a chance I'll have to scrape ice or brush snow off the car.

I have no experience with the military or prison but I imagine that they might experience the same sort of sensitivities that seem petty and silly from a distance but not within the moment. And I'm guessing that in those sorts of environments, since the threat of death or bodily harm generally hangs in the air, some sort of survival instinct kicks in every so often that provides one with the sense of perspective that keeps one from wallowing too much in the moment. But seldom does such perspective come in Temp Town. A form of it surfaces when one learns that the end of the job, whether for everyone or just for you, will occur in the immediate future - but even then, it's generally on to the next gig before long. Not that I want to operate with my life in danger per se, mind you, I'm just saying that the small stuff would be harder to sweat if the proverbial Big Stuff were to surface. But it doesn't come; it's all small stuff.

At least until my next day off.

No comments: